By Dominique Jando (Researched by Christian Hamel)
In the world of cat trainers, Pablo Noel (1926-2018) was an original, and his humoristic style in the midst of a group of roaring lionesses (and a phlegmatic lion) has never been duplicated—although one of his contemporaries, Gerd Siemoneit, worked in a comparable if subtler vein with some of his large groups of felines.
Pablo Noel was born Paul Noël on September 7, 1926, in Saint-Eugène (today Bologhine), a borough of Algiers—at a time when Algeria was a French colony. Neither his father, Jean-Antoine, nor his mother, Louise, née Escoda, belonged to the circus. Paul was only seven years old when he lost his mother; he was adopted by Louis Bouillon, a cat trainer(English/American) An trainer or presenter of wild cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, etc. and menagerie owner better known as Ivanoff, in whose family he grew up.
The territory covered by Ivanoff's traveling menagerie encompassed the south of France, Spain, and North Africa, where its owner was very popular. Inevitably, Paul learned his adoptive father's trade, working first as a cage boy and becoming his apprentice. He was fifteen in 1941 when, unbeknownst to Ivanoff, he decided to enter by himself a cage that contained a hyena and a group of wolves.
In traveling menageries, wild animals were usually presented in relatively small, rectangular cages often built on large wagon platforms. The animals frequently lived in the cage where they performed. Unlike in a circus ring's large steel arena, there was not much room to move to shelter in case of unexpected fights or an attack. Not only Paul had entered a relatively difficult space to manage, but he had also intruded into the animals' private quarters! Luckily, the tumult that ensued Paul's incursion alerted Ivanoff, who quickly took his protégé out of harm's way.
Yet, this scarcity of space, specific to the old traveling menageries, between wild animals and their trainers was a good conduit for learning how to act and move in intimate proximity to big cats; a good degree of familiarity and confidence had to be established on both sides to create and maintain a good menagerie act. Paul would indeed make good use of his precious menagerie experience in his subsequent circus career.
For the 1949 and 1950 seasons, Ivanoff went to work with the brand-new Radio-Circus (formerly Cirque Gruss-Jeannet), whose association with the popular radio network Radio-Luxembourg quickly made it one of France's most successful circuses, and within a couple of years, one of France's largest. Paul, who had accompanied Ivanoff, distinguished himself by recapturing alone five lionesses that had broken free from their truck during a move between towns.
In 1951, at age twenty-five, Paul joined the French Expeditionary Force that was fighting along the U.S. Army in Korea. He was awarded the Silver Star medal, one of the United States' highest military awards, "for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States." He didn't return to the circus until 1956, when he went to Spain to assist Émilien Moustier, who presented a group of lions at the Circo Americano of Manuel Feijóo and Arturo Castilla.
Castilla had a keen eye for potential talent; it is in a show that Feijóo and Castilla produced in Palma de Mallorca for Christmas of 1958 that Paul made his debut in the cage with a group of seven lions. In the process, he became Pablo Noel. The following season, he was featured in their Circo Americano, then one of Europe's largest circuses. His career was launched.
Pablo Noel quickly found his style, as well as all the spectacular and humorous signature moments of his act: They were dictated by his cheerful personality and the intimacy that he easily created with his charges. He was a natural, and nothing in his act appeared to be forced or artificial. Pablo Noel became a circus star and an audience's favorite in Spain, and then in Europe.
For most of his career, he was a fixture of Circo Americano (including its avatar, the German Spanischer National Circus under the management of Carola Williams) and other Castilla ventures and, when the Togni family started the Italian unit of Circo Americano in 1963, Pablo Noel was in the program. He would be a regular of the Italian giant (who anglicized its name to American Circus) from 1964 through 1988.
He was nonetheless occasionally featured in other prominent circuses, such as Munich's Circus Kronebau, the Cirque Bouglione in Paris for its Holiday Season shows at the Porte de Versailles exhibition hall, and even, in 1972, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States—where, unfortunately, he was not a success: In a country where machismo is ingrained in the culture, American audiences didn't fully appreciate the humor of Pablo Noel's parody of whip-cracking traditional lion "tamers."
Pablo Noel gave his last performance on February 28, 1988, at Circo Americano-Togni in Salerno, in Italy. He retired in Carlet, near Valencia, in Spain with his wife, Marisa, whom he had married in 1963 during a tour of Circo Americano in The Netherlands, and who gave him two sons. He passed away in his home on December 18, 2018, at age 92. The circus world and his many fans mourned a true artist who was indeed one of the great cat trainers of the second half of the twentieth century.
- Video: Pablo Noel, lion act, at the Spanischer National Circus (1963)